The Top 50 Albums of 2021, Albums 40 – 31

Across the Margin continues its rollout of the Best Albums of 2021 with albums 40 — 31…

40. Fruit Bats – The Pet Parade

The Pet Parade, the ninth full-length album release for Eric Johnson’s indie-folk project Fruit Bats, gets better with every listen. As you take in the album, new portals of musical impressiveness are opened, and additional avenues of appreciation are unlocked. One song in particular, “Eagles Below Us,” has stuck in our mindseye and aroused us again and again with its magic. With a pleasing composition moving the listener forward through its gossamer lands, an effortlessness to its delivery and a warm and inviting overall feeling, it is a song best enjoyed on a sultry summer day, relaxing on backyard porches, watching as orbs of condensation on a cool drink shimmer in the dancing sunlight. That’s the kind of cure for the grayness of the past years struggles we can get behind, and “Eagles Below Us” is an apt window into the sort of enchantment this latest offering from Fruit Bats encompasses.  

Essential Tracks: “The Pet Parade,” “The Balcony,” “Eagle Below Us,” “Holy Rose.”

39. Mac Miller — Faces / Radiohead — Kid A Mnesia

This is the point, which invariably happens in all of our annual album celebrations, where we abandon our traditional countdown rules for the greater purpose…to call out incredible music in all its forms. In this slot we offer up two albums — a magnificent hip-hop mixtape that finally became available on streaming services this year and a re-release that “merged” two classic albums into one phenomenal experience. That mixtape is Mac Miller’s Faces, the follow up to the dearly missed Miller’s second studio album Watching Movies with the Sound Off (2013), an album that is known for chronicling the artist’s early struggles with addiction. Yet more than anything Faces highlights his absolutely phenomenal talent in the era when his skill set was beginning to peak. And the double album re-release we spoke of is a marriage of two of the famed Brit rockers Radiohead’s most celebrated albums, superbly entitled Kid A Mnesia — which merges 2000’s Kid A with 2001’s Amnesiac and is brimming with B-sides, demos, and rarities. They are both insanely remarkable. Get your ears on both ASAP!

Essential tracks: “Happy Birthday,” “Funeral,” “Rain (feat Vince Staples),” “Therapy,”,“If You Say The Word,” “Follow Me Around,” “How To Disappear in Strings.”

38. Ryley Walker And Kikagaku Moyo Deep Fried Grandeur 

A psych rock guitarist extraordinaire teamed up with the outstanding Japanese psychedelic band from Tokyo, Kikagaku Moyo to craft one of our favorite live releases of 2021, Deep Fried Grandeur. We couldn’t paint a better picture of the album than Ryley Walker already has, so here’s his words: “So, the group came together at Le Guess Who? Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands in 2018. I was asked by the organizers to find another group at the festival to collaborate with for a one-off performance. I was immediately drawn to Kikagaku Moyo. We share similar guitar scuzz and riff heavy improvising when playing live. Seemed like the most fun and natural thing to do. I was in the middle of a European tour, so I had my full backing band. So with KM and me, nine mother fuckers total on stage wailing. It was a lot of SOUND. So we passed the live recordings off to Cooper Crain of CAVE and bitchin bajas to tweak the levels and add some sprinkles. He shaped the raw recordings into a cohesive piece that works for a 40 min slab. We had an afternoon of rehearsal and it was mostly just drinking espresso, smoking cigs and saying ‘man, we’ll be fine.’ And it was great.” Late in the day that the album was released, February 5th, Walker tweeted “My joke record label’s record that every other label passed on has the #1 selling album on Bandcamp. Not a dime to PR. All the money split between the people who play on it. Thank you for the support!”. It’s tweets like that that make everything about this album’s release and its success just that much more satisfying.

Essential Tracks: “Pour Dampness Down In The Stream,” “Shrinks The Day.”

37.  Madlib — Sound Ancestors

While billed as a Madlib solo effort, truth be told the latest effort from the West Coast born hip-hop producer, and DJ, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Otis Jackson Jr. is a collaboration with Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. As Hebden, a longtime friend of Madlib, tells it, “I was listening to some of his new [Madlib’s] beats and studio sessions when I had the idea that it would be great to hear some of these ideas made into a Madlib solo album…arranged into tracks that could all flow together in an album designed to be listened to start to finish…we decided to work on this together with him sending me tracks, loops, ideas and experiments that I would arrange, edit, manipulate and combine. I was sent hundreds of pieces of music over a couple of years.” Born of that, and unbelievably, is Madlib’s proper debut Sound Ancestors, an album that is chock-full of varied, yet seamlessly flowing, soundscapes that are funky, smooth, and engaging.

Essential Tracks: “Road of The Lonely Ones,” “Hopprock,” “The Call.”

36. Vince Staples — Vince Staples

Relative to his prior releases, the Long Beach, California rapper Vince Staples’ latest album is more subdued and could aptly be described as a slow-burn. But this statement does not mean that Staples’ self-titled album, produced by the incredibly gifted Keny Beats, doesn’t hit hard. Employing a mostly monotone lyrical approach throughout the self-titled album, the rapper’s oft-playful yet clever rhymes breeze over producer Beats’ smooth and intricately woven soundscapes. This collaboration works to create a very personal story across the album, one chronicling where the artist came from and how life has changed as his star has risen. Vince Staples’ Vince Staples opens the door to a past burdened by poverty and gang violence, and finds an artist brave enough to lay out exactly how it affected him, and how he found a way to grow from it.

Essential Tracks: “Are You With That?,” “Taking Trips,” “Sundown Town.”

35. Liz Cooper — Hot Sass

Liz Cooper’s sophomore album Hot Sass is a fiery discharge of exciting garage rock that finds us thrilled with this phenomenally talented artist’s future prospects. For those not familiar with the Baltimore native, who recently shed Nashville for Brooklyn, New York, Hot Sass is a departure for Cooper, and an exciting change of tone from her 2018 debut Window Flowers (released under the moniker Liz Cooper & The Stampede). Produced by Benny Yurco (Michael Nau, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals), Hot Sass feels risky and unhinged, as if by design, and reveals a bold yet fresh direction for the artist. Exemplifying Cooper’s audacious new mentality is the odyssey that is “Lucky Charm,” an eight minute plus jaunt that builds methodically from the onset, where Cooper’s vocals don’t show up until three and a half minutes into the track, and features whirling guitars and adventurous changes, all buoyed by a charging bassline that just won’t quit. 

Essential Tracks: “Motorcycle,” “Getting Closer,” “Lucky Charm.”

34. John Andrews & The Yawns – Cookbook

New Hampshire based folk artist John Andrew, along with his “imaginary” band The Yawns, released what is assuredly one of the most relaxing albums of the year. While this might not read as a compliment, we certainly mean it to be one, as John Andrew’s music is “simple and endearing, inspired by mid century love songs.” Take “New California Blue” for instance, an ode to Joni Mitchell, where piano delightfully dances behind Andrew’s gentle crooning. Or, “Easy Going,” a gorgeously mellow song that is equal parts sentimental and heartfelt. Endearingly, the artist’s mother wrote the bio for Cookbook, and closed it with this gem of a line when describing the album: “Have you ever seen that painting of dogs playing poker? It might as well be what they were listening to as the bulldog pushed his chips forward.” Perfectly put John’s mom.

Essential Tracks: “New California Blue,” “River of Doubt,” “Easy Going.”

33. Rose City Band — Earth Trip

Portland, Oregon based Rose City Band’s latest offering, entitled Earth Trip, arrived at the most ideal of times, summer. The soothing, melodic songs that a band as talented and grounded as Rose City Band craft meander with the patience and carefree ease of an inviting midsummer day. The first single off the Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips, Moo Duo) fronted band, “Lonely Places,” is a perfect example of the sampling of cathartic songs to be found on Earth Trip. The song is a delight, finding an acoustic guitar frolicing harmoniously with a pedal steel guitar as Johnson’s weightless voice mingles in and drifts above. Fortuitously, this is only one of many joys found throughout Earth Trip, an album that feels like a sanctuary port from the stormy seas of life and we find ourselves often seeking it out when we are in need of elegant guitar play and harmonious, beautiful melodies to soothe one’s weary soul.

Essential Tracks: “Lonely Places,” “In The Rain,” “Silver Roses.”

32. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

Julien Baker’s recent compositions, time and again, commence with a whisper and culminate with a ferocious bone chilling roar. But that journey, from opening note to inspiring climax, is one that feels satisfying to earn, as Baker’s songs are notoriously laden with deep emotion and heavy, thought-provoking sentiments. Little Oblivions is Baker’s third album, yet her first featuring complete instrumentation and the accompaniment suits her potent arrangements perfectly. There has always been a power, a realness, in Baker’s work, yet throughout Little Oblivions that might swells to heights we have yet to see from the talented singer-songwriter. With all that said, a paired down Julien Baker still hits so very hard, as exemplified in “Crying Wolf,” a track that is tempered and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Regardless of how voracious the delivery, Baker’s profound, deeply relatable lyricism and her mighty vocal abilities find her one of the most enthralling acts in all of indie-rock, now and surely for years and years to come.

Essential Tracks: “Hardline,” “Crying Wolf,” “Faith Healer.”

31. IDK — USEE4YOURSELF

We fell deep for Maryland based rapper IDK’s skills when we came upon 2018’s “ONCE UPON A TIME (FREESTYLE),” a banger of a track that we will never stop rocking and celebrating. Soon after, his debut album, Is He Real?, stunned us in 2019 (spoiler alert – he was real AF), and this year, IDK’s USEE4YOURSELF solidified his stature in the game. While the album features phenomenal performances by guest artists such as The Neptunes, Slick Rick, and Young Thug (to name a few) and those tracks most assuredly bump, it’s the more intimate songs where IDK truly shines. In those moments he slowly walks us into his past, impressive songs like “1995” and “Hey Auntie,” that allow the listener to peer behind IDK’s curtain and reveal not just an artist who can spit powerful bars, but one that has countless impactful and inspiring stories to tell.

Essential Tracks: “Shoot My Shot,” “Hey Auntie,” “Peloton,” “Red.”

To Be Continued
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